Guilt, Shame, and Character
Folks with significant character disturbance lack sufficient capacity for guilt or shame. That’s because they lack a well-developed conscience. Guilt of course, has to do with feeling bad about something we’ve done. And shame involves feeling badly about who we are. Disturbed characters often do things that injure others. But they neither feel badly enough about what they’ve done or how it reflects on them.
For years, experts told us it’s okay to feel badly about something hurtful that we did. But they also told us it was never okay to feel badly about who we are. Guilt, they claimed, can make us want to do better, and that’s okay. Shame, on the other hand, supposedly only damages our sense of self-worth. It had to be avoided at all costs, they insisted. But years of clinical experience and mounds of new scientific data argue otherwise. The right kind of shame in the right doses helps build good character. Persons of real integrity care not only about what they do but also about what they do says about them.
Regret, Remorse, and Contrition
My co-author Dr. Kathy Armistead and I had several things in mind when we wrote How Did We End Up Here? We wanted victims of relationships gone bad to understand what happened to them and why. And we also wanted them to know how to rightly judge when someone is really striving to be a better person. So, we expounded on a topic I’ve posted articles about before. (See: Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition.) You have to understand the difference between regret, remorse, and contrition to know the signs someone is truly working to change. (See also: What Real Contrition Looks Like.)
Caring about what we do and how that reflects on our character can make us better persons. But becoming an authentically caring and responsible individual eventually involves transcending guilt and shame. Mature, spiritually-evolved characters don’t act conscientiously because they’d feel guilty or ashamed if they didn’t. Guilt and shame don’t drive their actions anymore. Love does. And mature love is not a sentiment. Rather, it’s a purposeful behavior, arising out of gratitude for life and the energy sustaining it. Gratitude for the many graces bestowed on us inspires true love. So does gratitude for the many folks who enter our lives as instruments of grace. And when we live in love and act in love we have the power to change the world. That’s because we ourselves have been transformed.
Character Matters will air live Sunday May 28 at 7 pm EDT.
My sincerest thanks go out to all who will be performing America, My Home! at Memorial Day events. Listen to the full rendition on this week’s Character Matters program. And as always, thanks to all for recommending my books and this blog to others.